Chapter FOI Program Ideas
Here are FOI program ideas for campus and professional SPJ chapters, gleaned from previous Sunshine Week projects and FOI programs conducted by chapters in the past. Check out more ideas from previous Sunshine Weeks as well. Try one out or come up with a new idea and share it with the rest of us!
SPJ's Black Hole Award: The Society of Professional Journalists launched the Black Hole Award this year to highlight the most heinous violations of the public's right to know. By exposing examples of unnecessary and harmful secrecy, we hope to educate the public to their rights and hold government accountable. The Freedom of Information Committee accepted nominations for 2010 violations, coordinated by committee member Mike Farrell of the University of Kentucky, and selected the winner along with five runners-up. This award will be handed out annually during national Sunshine Week. Click here to read about this year's winner and the five runners-up.
Reporters Guide to FERPA: Navigating the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act: Ever have a tough time getting public records from schools or universities? We feel your pain and are here to help you. The federal Family Education Rights and Privacy Act has been twisted beyond recognition, keeping school lunch menus, graduation honors and athletic travel records secret. Take back your right to information with this guide, produced by the Society of Professional Journalists in conjunction with the Georgia First Amendment Foundation.
FOI video for schools
Create a video interviewing publishers, journalists, citizens and public officials regarding the importance of open government and then provide it online and on DVDs for elementary, middle schools and high schools in your community.
Develop a catchy logo and design
Create a clever FOI phrase or logo and create posters or T-shirts for Sunshine Week. Pass them out at schools or public events. Make them available through your publications. Provide posters to SPJ and other groups sometimes theyll want reprints for their conferences if theyre clever and popular.
Organize a local FOI audit
Coordinate a FOI audit of agencies in your community or state. Have citizens or journalists request records and report how the agencies respond. For tips on conducting an audit see the SPJ FOI Audit Toolkit produced by Charles Davis.
Tie Sunshine Week to Spring Break
If youre a college paper, tie Sunshine Week to Spring Break, since the two often fall at about the same time. Theres more to sunshine than tanning on a beach. Access provides us the ability to keep an open government and society going so we can head out for spring break.
Tap into pre-produced FOI content
If youre looking for FOI commentary and graphics, check out the pre-prepared materials at the Student Press Law Center and the commentaries, cartoons and public service ads at sunshineweek.org. Print out the FOI cartoons and hand them out to your chapter members to post on their work cubicles.
Profile citizen access heroes
Find people who have used access laws to help their communities, such as neighborhood activists. Locate the Erin Brockovichs in your area and show how government transparency makes life better. Allow citizens to chime in on a blog to provide their successes and frustrations with accessing information.
Coordinate an FOI coffee shop or pub gathering
Invite a guest speaker who uses FOI a lot (an investigative reporter, private investigator, government librarian, genealogist, etc.) to a coffee shop or pub to talk about how he or she uses FOI. Lead a discussion and share tips and problems.
Ask legislators and other elected officials to reaffirm their commitment to open government through proclamations, resolutions and opinion pieces. Get them on the record for how they stand on freedom of information in the abstract, as well as specific provisions in the law that might need changing.
Create tailored FOI ads
Develop FOI public service ads tailored to your state for community papers and television stations. Work with press associations to create and disseminate the materials.
Sponsor a high school FOI essay contest
Put on a high school essay contest with cash awards for area schools. Ask students to submit essays on why its important to know whats going on in government.
Hold a community FOI panel discussion
Create a diverse panel of journalists, public officials and others interested in access to talk about balancing access with other needs at a community forum. Televise it and open it to the public. Look for partners, such as the League of Women Voters, and other groups interested in good government.
Create interactive online features
Find a computer pro to develop online interactive FOI features, such as Flash games. These are still relatively rare so they can have a lot of impact. Make sure to forward the links to FOI groups so they can link to them. Great fun!
Translate FOI materials
Find translators who will translate your states FOI materials into Spanish and other languages to benefit those who are not quite fluent in English and therefore disenfranchised and the most vulnerable. Spread the information to groups who deal with people who grapple with English as a second language. Empower them.
Editorialize for specific issues
Write editorials and opinion columns about the importance of access, focusing on why it matters to citizens and society. Localize the issue to a specific incident that has caught the publics attention. Also, check with national groups such as SPJ to see if they have opinion columns that you can publish or air. Check out the editorial cartoons that are provided for free publication by ASNE.
Sponsor SPJ FOI training
SPJ provides FOI training for chapters, provided enough people will show up. An expert FOI trainer will come to your community and provide a two-hour presentation on great documents and strategies for requesting records. For more information, check out the SPJ newsroom training page.
Create portable open-meeting cards
Create laminated cards for wallets or purses that provide the basics of open meeting laws and a statement for reporters to say when officials prepare to go into executive session for questionable reasons. Hand them out to local media.
Propose model laws
Work with your press association and states top media law attorneys to develop a model open records or meetings law, or fixes to the current law. Explain why it is beneficial and work with groups who might oppose it initially. Generate enthusiasm among legislators who might choose to sponsor the legislation.
Develop FOI guide for citizens
The more you can make FOI relevant to citizens the more they will realize its importance. Provide a guide for citizens explaining 100 public records they can access to help them in everyday life, such as property records, criminal incident reports, airport flight plans, restaurant inspections, sex offender locations and city zoning plans.
Develop and distribute Sunshine Week icons
Create catchy Sunshine Week icons that can be produced in newspaper and television stories that are based on public records. Short on time? Use the logos provided by sunshineweek.org. Disseminate the icons to publications and also urge them to run sidebars explaining where the documents came from and how citizens can access them.
Request the requests
Request the FOI request logs for state and local agencies and then report your findings to demonstrate the widespread use of FOI laws and how citizens rely on open government. You should find, based on previous research, that few requests are submitted by journalists. Most are by businesses and citizens.
Tour a local government depository library
Get your chapter members together for a tour of the local government depository library. There are more than 1,200 depositories in the country, usually located at large public universities. Also try out the library computers to see if they have access to Lexis-Nexis and other online records services that your organization may not subscribe to. Ask the librarian to show you documents and databases that are of use to journalists and citizens. After your tour, go out for refreshments and brainstorm how you might apply the information to reporting.
Select the Top 10 from the Last 10 Years
Use databases to identify all the FOI-related stories published on your campus, in your town, or state within the past 10 years and then select the best of them to highlight on a Web site. Interview the journalists about how they used FOI laws to write their stories. Post the interviews along with copies of the original stories on the Web site. For an example, check out the University of Floridas Brechner Center for Freedom of Information Story Behind the Stories Web site at www.brechner.org/top30, which chronicled the top 30 FOI stories published in Florida in the past 30 years.
Print and distribute Reporters Notebooks that include FOI information
Help keep FOI information close for reporters when they need it most. Print Reporters Notebooks with your chapters logo on the cover and your states statutes about open records and open meetings on the inside cover. Include sample statements for a journalist to read if they are closed out of a meeting.
Hold an FOI training day for student journalists
Recruit a local law firm to host an FOI training day for journalists in your community or at your college campus. Cover issues such as public records requests and open meetings laws at the county, state and federal level. Help students understand how they can request records from their own university as well.
Tap into local talent
Is there a professor or journalist in your area who has published articles or a significant non-fiction book that was based on information found in the public record? Host a brown bag luncheon to hear how the author turned the information in public records into a series of articles or a full-length book.
Run with it!
Recruit members from your chapter to enter a local 5k race. Everyone run or walk together as a group and wear t-shirts that say, Im running for ACCESS. Include your chapters Web site on the back of your shirt so crowds can see it as you run by.
Take a field trip
Visit your county, circuit, or even state court to hear important cases involving freedom of information issues, such as denials for records requests, violations of the state open meetings laws, and requests to keep certain court proceedings or cases open to the public.
Ask local politicians about FOI issues
Ask your city officials or university administrators to chime in on FOI issues. Does your city or university have an ombudsperson to handle records requests and disputes? What is the city or university policy on public access to e-mails, records, meetings?